Trial Tax: Unlawful but Not Unavoidable

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Every day criminal defendants face a difficult decision; do they agree to a plea agreement that offers a reduced sentence or do they invoke their 6th amendment right to take their case to trial in an attempt to prove their innocence. Those who agree to a plea agreement often do so out of fear of the enhanced penalties for the crime alleged. Prosecutors frequently overcharge and then offer a “great” plea deal that seems too good to pass up in an attempt to still get a conviction without having to lift a finger. If the plea is refused and the case goes to trial the sentence imposed could be harsher than the suggested sentence. Is the judge punishing the defendant for invoking his or her Constitutional rights? From the government’s perspective trials are costly affairs; when a cheaper option is available it is inconsiderate to not accept. These are called trial taxes: penalties imposed because the defendant and council were brave enough to stand up for the accused rights.

Here is a scenario to help wrap the mind around the situation. You are charged with a felony. The state makes an offer to let you plead guilty and go to prison for 7 years when the normal sentence is 15 years. The defense counsel then asks the prosecutor for a lower offer which is more reasonable regarding the circumstances of the case (3 years in prison and then 5 years probation). When the prosecutor refuses the lower offer he later argues to the judge or an even greater sentence after a conviction by jury trial. If the prosecutor had accepted the defense council’s lower plea offer (3yrs in prison) and then the defendant decided to try the case anyway, the prosecutor should not be allowed to request a judgment that is harsher than the previously agreed upon plea. So when a prosecutor refuses a less harsh plea agreement they are essentially saying ” I don’t want to offer you a fair deal now because I want to reserve my right to slam you with a harsh sentencing should you lose at trial.”

In 2003 The Supreme Court of Florida ruled that “the law is clear that any judicially imposed penalty which needlessly discourages assertion of the Fifth Amendment right not to plead guilty deters the exercise of the Sixth Amendment right to demand a jury trial is patently unconstitutional.” Wilson v. State, 845 So.2d 142 (Fla.2003) Plainly put, the Constitution of the United States guarantees anyone who is charged with a criminal act has the right to plead their innocence and allows a defendant to take their case to trial. Any action on the part of the Court or State to limit these rights is unconstitutional.

If we truly live in a society based on truth and justice and the notion that an individual is innocent until proven guilty, then how can such a practice still exist? The problem lies in the system itself. Most courts have too many cases on their dockets and not enough time and resources to try them all. Many prosecutors have hundreds or even thousands of cases to go through each year and rarely have the ability to fully research and investigate each individual case. When there are too many cases and not enough time or money to fully try them all the only available option left to the government is to try to get the defendant to agree to a plea. What’s the best way to get someone to agree to a plea and forfeit his or her Constitutional right? Tell defendants if they go to trial and lose they will receive a longer prison term, but plea and confess to the crime and the State will be gracious enough to reduce the sentence. The State keeps its recourses, the Prosecution can devote it’s time to another case, and the defendant gets a lesser sentence, everybody wins, right? Wrong.

The system described above is designed for efficiency, not justice. Imagine going to the cable company to pay a bill. You show up, walk inside, and there is a line of 100 people in front of you. The cable company wants everyone to show up, wait patiently in line, walk to the counter, pull out their credit card, swipe, and be on their way. Anyone who stops to dispute a bill slows down this process and causes congestion for the cable company. Congestion means less profit and having to put up with unhappy customers, even if the customer is right! So in order to avoid congestion, the cable company will insert terms that any customer challenging the bill will have a penalty if the customer turns out to be incorrect. It becomes easier to just give in to the cable company’s demands than fight for your rights.

The key to avoiding a scenario such as this is effective mitigation. Mitigation is the entire process that occurs before a trial that includes researching the client’s history, advising and guiding the client through rehabilitation efforts and more. Mitigation is usually used to bargain for a plea agreement between the parties, however, proper mitigation is imperative during preparation for a trial. Most cases are not determined through litigation alone, they are determined long before by your attorney’s preparation and attention to detail regarding your particular case. At the Law Office of Brian Jones, we pride ourselves on our ability to effectively mitigate as well as litigate. We spend countless hours reviewing each and every case that is scheduled to go to trial to be sure that nothing is missed and our clients are getting the greatest representation afforded to them by the Constitution. We constantly draft and submit motions and other filings in order to properly defend your rights and do all we can to prevent a conviction for a crime you did not commit. Our skilled attorneys are dedicated to making sure that you are treated just and fairly as mandated by the United States Constitution; no one should ever feel as though they are alone when going through a criminal ordeal and our attorneys will be there to assist you every step of the way.

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